March 8, 2013
Symphony's Response to Adversity: Excellence
The ultimate hallmark of true professionals is that regardless of circumstances, they perform to their best. For the second consecutive week, musicians of the San Francisco Symphony met that challenge with flying colors.
Last week, they gave a magnificent performance of Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 just hours after learning that a beloved colleague, principal oboist William Bennett, died five days after collapsing on stage with brain hemorrhage.
On Friday night, once again the musicians were at their best, even in the midst of the hubbub following their strike authorization vote in protest of stalled contract negotiations.
Orchestra members on stage and most of the audience wore freshly printed "I support SFS musicians" stickers distributed at the Davies Symphony Hall entrance. Naturally, the suddenly emerging work stoppage threat was discussed all around the hall — but when the performance started, it was all focus and dedication on stage, unusually quiet in the audience (except for the usual bouts of coughs between movements ... where they belong).
And yet, before the orchestra got down to business, there was another semi-extraneous matter on the agenda. With the orchestra tuned and ready, out to the stage came SFS President Sakurako Fisher, the top official on the management side, without the sticker, of course, but smiling broadly and carrying the gold-plated trophy depicting a gilded gramophone, symbol of the GRAMMYs. Along with her: Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.
The ceremony was an acknowledgment of the MTT/SFS 2013 GRAMMY Best Orchestral Performance award for the recording of John Adams' Harmonielehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine. MTT playfully let associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman touch the statue, snatching it away. When Mayor Lee declared the city's "San Francisco Symphony Day," MTT asked if that meant the orchestra could park free until midnight; no official reply was heard.
The John Adams mention segued into a performance of Drift and Providence by his son, Samuel Carl Adams. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 followed, with Yuja Wang as soloist, and the concert concluded with Brahms' Symphony No. 1.
The concerto was the highlight of the evening, on the order of the previous week's unforgettable Bruckner. Not only was Yuja at her usual best, but the orchestra partnered her with an extraordinary single voice, making the music sound as a piano duet. It was magic from the very beginning, the pianist playing the gorgeous opening notes with melting lyricism, the orchestra blending into the sound almost imperceptibly. Soloist, conductor, orchestra were at one, united, undivided, breathing and singing together.
It was amazing to hear an old warhorse as something new and thrilling. Look for it on KDFC-FM or www.KDFC.com, probably on March 19 - SFS broadcasts are on Tuesdays, beginning at 8 p.m.
It is not Yuja's note-perfect, virtuoso playing that sets her apart from other pianists; it is the way she shapes each note, each phrase with a kind of logic or inevitability that communicates the music uniquely. The cadenza in the Allegro moderato had an intimate inner voice, the Andante dazzled with superb legato (usually said of singers, but exactly right in this case), the Rondo was precisely as "lively" as the Vivace Beethoven had asked for — not the rush into a romp too often heard elsewhere.
It was moving to see the musicians, with the campaign/protest stickers, completely giving themselves over to the task at hand, transforming work into triumph and bliss. MTT, who held it all together, was adventurous and bold in maintaining a kind of sound rarely heard: a "soft," but eminently successful Beethoven, lyrical, often hushed, quite without hard edges. In his interpretation, the Andante turned into an affecting "night music." He and Yuja have worked together so long that every time the pianist seemed to start getting ahead of the orchestra, MTT instantly responded and maintained their seamless cohesion.
In the Brahms, there was a perhaps inevitable stepping down from the sustained highs of the concerto, with some ebb and flow in energy. Still, the performance was solid, especially well sustained by woodwinds and the brass. In the long violin solo part of the Andante, concertmaster Alexander Barantschik played beautifully.
Orchestral performance was exceptional in the opening piece, making the listener wish for more substantial music. Adams' work, with references to San Francisco locations, is eminently pleasant, its sonorities are appealing, the digital manipulation of cowbells and drums is interesting, but there is just too much empty calorie here.
It's a fine sound sculpture, going nowhere in particular; at 20 minutes, it's about five minutes too long. But you would never have guessed that watching and listening to the musicians. Once again, they gave their all.
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